By actually showing interest in defense, the Celtics turned a first-half offensive clinic by the San Antonio Spurs into a second-half defensive chess match between coaches Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich, a contest between aging teams that spent the final 24 minutes stymieing each other.
Rallying from a 17-point deficit to take a 2-point lead in the final 3 minutes, the Celtics were faced with a final chance to win the game. And once again Paul Pierce was handed the responsibility of getting the Celtics a critical home victory with a clinching shot.
With 7.9 seconds left, he gathered the inbounds pass from Ray Allen, dribbled to the right side of a pick-and-roll created by Kevin Garnett that forced a favorable one-on-one matchup with Tim Duncan. Instead of taking the veteran center to the basket, Pierce opted for a step-back jumper that bounced off the side rim at the buzzer.
The Celtics were handed a disheartening 87-86 loss despite dominating the second half.
The Spurs, winners of nine straight and 26 of their last 31 games, scored 28 points and made just 11 of 40 shots (27.5 percent) in the second half. Their veteran guile and the Celtics’ lack of a rebounding big man, however, led to a critical 6-0 run to take an 87-83 lead. Allen, back after a six-game absence with an ankle injury, countered with a 3-pointer with 39.8 seconds left and the Celtics got a defensive stop to set up Pierce’s finale.
The Celtics allowed San Antonio to grab six offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter and Matt Bonner provided the eventual winning points on a 15-footer after a Manu Ginobili offensive board. It was a frustrating loss for the Celtics, who had a five-game winning streak snapped.
In the end, Pierce was left to explain his decision to settle for a jump shot instead of taking Duncan to the basket. The Spurs were not out of team fouls, so Duncan could have chosen to foul Pierce without risking free throws.
“This type of stuff is not really scripted, you don’t have an idea of what’s going to happen in those type of situations,’’ Pierce said. “You get in those pressure situations and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but the thing is I’m not going to second-guess my decision. I thought I got a great shot, created some space right there at the free throw line. It’s just some days they fall, some days they don’t.’’
What was an offensive slugfest in the first half turned into a defensive struggle in the third quarter. The Spurs tallied 59 points in the first half but just 9 in the third quarter on 4-for-20 shooting. Those jumpers that were falling effortlessly in the first half began clanging off the rim as the Celtics increased their defensive intensity.
Their defensive showing in the second half gave the Celtics some encouragement heading into Thursday’s showdown with the Chicago Bulls at United Center. The Celtics were picked apart in the first half, but the Spurs found nothing easy after the break.
No Spur made more than two field goals in the half and the San Antonio starters were a combined 6 of 22.
“That team is known for putting up a lot of points,’’ said Garnett, “I thought for the most part we did a good job of coming back. We missed a lot of easy shots that we usually make. I am beating myself up a little bit recalling some different plays and we missed a lot of shots, missed dunks and stuff like that.’’
Rajon Rondo ignited the crowd with a 3-pointer to beat the 24-second shot clock to reduce the deficit to 63-55 as the Celtics ended the third quarter on a 7-2 run and trailed, 68-64, setting up the frantic fourth quarter.
The Celtics claimed the lead at 83-81 on a Brandon Bass tip-in with 3 minutes left but allowing offensive rebounds was the nemesis again. Duncan grabbed a Stephen Jackson 3-point miss, fired it to an open Gary Neal for 3-pointer and 1-point lead.
Ginobili then grabbed a rebound of another Jackson miss and found an open Bonner for a 12-footer for an 87-83 lead. Allen, who was bottled up by the defense of Danny Green, then hit his 3-pointer, his lone long-range shot of the game.
In 35 minutes Allen scored 5 points on 2-for-6 shooting and looked slower on his healing right ankle. Avery Bradley, who had been splendid in Allen’s absence, led the Celtics with 19 points off the bench.
“Ray looked rusty, but you had to expect that,’’ Rivers said. “But our lineup looked good to start the game. But honestly, it’s when we subbed in that stretch that [the Spurs] made their run.’’
In the final 2:33, Rivers played Rondo, Allen, Bradley, Pierce, and Garnett, and the extra small lineup was scrappy defensively but could not give San Antonio any resistance in the paint. It’s a risky lineup, but it was effective.
“That’s what really got us back in the game, our second - the smaller lineup,’’ Garnett said. “I thought it made us quicker, and more scrappier. I thought we got more loose balls. Had our chance to open up the game and just couldn’t. Like I said, I missed a lot of easy shots. Other guys missed some easy shots. Take those shots night-in, night out.’’